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VOIGHT, JON : Anaconda

CHARACTER COWBOY
For 30 years, Oscar winner Jon Voight has remained one of the most complex and intelligent actors of his generation, delivering powerful performances in the likes of Deliverance, Midnight Cowboy, his Oscar-winning Coming Home and Runaway Train. After a lull in his big-screen career, Voight burst back with the smash hit Mission: Impossible, and has four high profile movies coming this year, the first being Anaconda. This week, Voight talked exclusively to PAUL FISCHER about snakes, Hollywood and character acting.

It's hard to believe that thirty years ago, a young actor called Jon Voight helped break new ground as the co-star of John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy. Three decades on, and there's no stopping the 59-year old Oscar winner enjoying a huge resurgence in his movie career. "It's funny, because I've always been working but not in the active feature world. I'm just happy to be working now", the quietly spoken actors says pensively. "I have three other pictures coming out so I've been very busy."

Critics are bowled over and amused by Voight's latest screen incarnation, a South American snake hunter in the snake-starring creature feature, Anaconda. The film tells of a group of documentary filmmakers on the Amazon terrorised by not only a giant anaconda but also the ever snarling and gruesome Paul Sarone, played by Voight. He is one of the most extraordinary screen villains of recent memory, a character that the actor worked hard to create.

CLASSIC STORY
"It's a fun character for me and I enjoyed building this character, who's as horrific and unpredictable as the snake itself." Apart from the snake, it's Voight's movie and his facial gestures and movements are nothing if not quintessential scene-stealing. "I must say I chuckled when I saw what we'd done."

"So basically, I went in search for this character, and then put all these pieces together in a fun way."

But getting that look was not quite as easy as one would think. "I was trying to develop different techniques in order to change myself, physically, for this. I had extra teeth made, for instance, I also put some plugs in my nose to widen it, then I was doing this thing with my jaw to effect a certain kind of presence as well. I also spent a while finding an accent I'd like. So basically, I went in search for this character, and then put all these pieces together in a fun way."

The film was not easy to make, and was shot on location in the repressive but beautiful Amazon jungle. "If you're not used to that kind of heat, it can be debilitating, but there were times when I quite enjoyed it."

What easily could have become a standard and forgettable monster movie struck a chord with American movie audiences and critics alike. Voight feels that it's old-fashioned narrative helps make Anaconda special. "There's a kind of a classic story at work in it, this idea of confronting a great danger and step-by-step being drawn into this. Plus it's a fun journey to go on."

SINGING NAZI TO MIDNIGHT COWBOY
Times have certainly changed for this son of a Czech-American golf pro. Voight was active in student theatricals in high school and at Catholic University. He made his off-Broadway stage debut in 1960 in O Oysters, receiving a daunting review which opined that he "can neither walk nor talk." Fortunately, Voight persevered and in 1961 he took over the role of "singing Nazi" Rolf in the Broadway hit The Sound of Music (his Liesl was Laurie Peters, who became his first wife). By the time he became an "overnight" star in the role of wide-eyed hustler Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (1969), he had nearly a decade's worth of experience under his belt.

The success of Midnight Cowboy, which earned Voight an Oscar nomination, prompted a fast-buck distributor to ship out a double feature of two never-released mid-1960s films: Fearless Frank, filmed in 1965, starred Voight as a reluctant superhero, while Madigan's Millions was a 1967 turkey featuring Voight's Cowboy co-star (and longtime friend) Dustin Hoffman.

Voight's career from the late sixties to the end of the seventies, was defined as his crowning epoch, and contained a plethora of memorable screen characters. Looking back on that early career, Voight remains philosophical about the work that once made him a star. "All those experiences have been quite vivid to me", the actor recalls. "I see the good work that I laboured for. But when I look at some of those films, I also see the great work by some of the other artists as well, from the directors and cinematographers to my fellow actors."

Devoting more and more time to his various sociopolitical causes in the 1980s and 1990s, Voight found less and less time to make movies.

"Dickens once said they were the best of times and the worst of times, and that applies to Hollywood.

Now he has returned to the forefront of Hollywood with mainstream hits such as Mission: Impossible and Anaconda, Voight can afford to examine the Hollywood he's busily working in today which is very different from his early days in the business. "Dickens once said they were the best of times and the worst of times, and that applies to Hollywood. Certainly there are more opportunities today that probably weren't there when I started out. There's also an extraordinary technological advance that is quite amazing, so we can do stories that have visual computer graphics that are so astounding that we can bring to life pretty much ANY character that we can conceive of. But the stories today still remain on the shoulders of the actors to a great degree, and while we have some filmmakers who may have broken new ground, such as Oliver Stone, the storytelling that was part of my real love for films when I was growing up, seems to have dissipated. "

THE RAINMAKER

"I've always considered myself to be a character actor, and the fun has been to make a role come to life."

Voight considers himself less a movie star and more a character actor, an aspect of his acting that he has consciously chosen to develop. "There was an insecurity at one point in my life where I'd look at myself in the mirror and saw myself as losing certain abilities, physically. Then I came around at looking at myself again and said : wait a minute, I can do certain roles now, and I found myself to be a more interesting person . I've always considered myself to be a character actor, and the fun has been to make a role come to life." Voight says that he likens himself to Lon Chaney.

The actor remains incredibly in demand. He filmed a role in Oliver Stone's U-Turn, starring Sean Penn and Nick Nolte, which Voight sees "as a more conventional film, narratively, than anything Oliver has done previously." It's about a drifter (Penn) who becomes entangled with a femme fatale (Anaconda's Jennifer Lopez) and her husband (Nolte) after his car breaks down in front of their house. The film co-stars Clare Danes and Billy Bob Thornton. "It's a tremendously interesting film, I think." Voight plays another bad guy in the action thriller/comedy Most Wanted, starring opposite Keenen Ivory Wayans. "It's a smart, political thriller, well written and quite different from what you'd expect from Wayans. I play this mad general, who's very fierce and dangerous." And to cap off a perfect year, Voight co-stars in Francis Coppola's star-studded drama The Rainmaker, based on a John Grisham novel, and featuring Danny De Vito, Virginia Madsen, Claire Danes, Danny Glover and Mickey Rourke. "That was an extraordinary experience", Voight says quietlty.

In October, Voight will start shooting his next film, The Dove of Flanders, based on the classic children's novel. "I'm looking forward to bringing this wonderful story for kids to life." Voight has two kids of his own, including actress Angelina Jolie, "who's coming up in as many films as I am." His biggest dream? "To share the screen with my kids."

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Jon Voight:"It's a fun character for me and I enjoyed building this character, who's as horrific and unpredictable as the snake itself."

See Andrew L. Urban's feature on the making of Anaconda

Scenes from Anaconda

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